Aida Garifullina: A Rising Soprano Star

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Aida Garifullina. (Photo by Simon Fowler/Decca) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Although I focus a lot on world music and jazz, I’ve always loved opera and art song. I saw the great German-British soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sing at the Hollywood Bowl in the late ’60s. On a separate occasion in the mid-1970s, I witnessed an Italian man beside me lose his cool during a performance of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at The Greek Theatre. I learned about opera and art song listening to Fred Hyatt on Sundays, while sitting in my lifeguard tower. I will admit to my own emotional moments at Puccini operas, too, whether it’s fighting back tears as the boat sails into Tokyo Bay while Madame Butterfly waits expectantly for her man, or during the devastating finale of Tosca.

Opera combines high art with soap opera drama. Many different elements must come together seamlessly—costumes, theater sets, endless rehearsals, costs—placing almost impossible demands on the conductor, who must orchestrate many things at once. Then there is the elegant art song—just a single voice, with or without instrumental accompaniment. Some composers like Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler did their best work setting art songs to the texts of great poets. Mahler’s work was particularly lapidary, especially as compared to his big, often unwieldy and meandering symphonies.

That said, I recently discovered a new album from a vocalist by the name of Aida Garifullina, who is already well established in Europe. She has just released her eponymously named album, Aida on Decca. At first glance, I thought it was another recording of Verdi’s arias, when in fact, the album included compositions by Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov, several French arias, plus a couple of Cossack and Tatar songs. It turns out that Aida is from the Tatarstan region of the Russian Federation, located between Russia and Kazakhstan.

Aida is a rising star in the opera world to say the least. The great Plácido Domingo called her “one of the most exciting opera divas of today and tomorrow,” which is high praise from a high priest, indeed. Aida was awarded first prize in Domingo’s 2013 Operalia competition for her performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Snow Maiden’s Aria.” You’ll find French classics such as Delibes’ “The Bell Song” and Gounod’s “Ah, je veux vivre dans ce rève” on the new album. But her version of an old folk song sung in her native Tartar, titled “Allüki,” is what really melted me. I also loved her traditional “Cossack Lullaby” and Rachmaninov’s ever-lovely “Vocalise.”

Aida is what is called a lyric soprano, which means her voice can go fast and high. Her intonation and phrasing are pitch-perfect, and she handles the most difficult passages with total aplomb. All things considered, the beauty of her singing voice blows me away. I’m not easily wowed by classical singers, but Aida is a major exception. If you enjoy opera or art song, you should check out this exceptionally talented new voice. With this new Decca release, Aida will undoubtedly gain a following in the US as well.

You may recognize Aida from her cameo appearance in—of all things—the film Florence Foster Jenkins. In the clip below, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant watch as Aida performs “The Bell Song.”

Aida spoke about the film in an article on The Guardian website: “Filming ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ made me as excited and nervous as performing in any opera,” says Garifullina. “It was my first time in a feature film, and I had the wonderful Stephen Frears directing me and Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in the audience—no pressure! And then it was all done in one take, live to camera. I could hardly believe it was all over so quickly, but the result looks and sounds amazing.”

And here’s a music video—which seems rather unusual for opera—of Aida performing Gounod’s aria, “Je Veux Vivre” at the Vienna Opera House.

And, finally, check out her version of the gorgeous Tatar folk song, “Allüki.”

Photo of Aida Garifullina (top) by Simon Fowler.